The Congressional Dynamics of Immigration Reform
Tichenor, Daniel J.
Unauthorized immigration and the status of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States are subjects that for years have spurred ferocious debate over the airwaves, on campaign trails and in statehouses across the country. Yet these fiery battles stood in bold contrast to the deep freeze that enveloped comprehensive immigration reform in the halls of Congress since the start of the Obama administration. But at the start of Obama’s second term, the changing demography of American democracy produced the seemingly impossible: the emergence of significant, bipartisan legislation tackling this issue. This paper focuses on the congressional dynamics of American immigration reform. How Congress shapes immigration politics and policy reflects several recurrent and emergent patterns. One of the most important dynamics is the fact that the federal courts long have granted Congress sweeping control over immigration while the issue also generates distinctive partisan and intraparty conflicts that regularly bedevil major reform efforts. These political fissures point to a second pattern: Congressional action on immigration reform typically requires the formation of “strange bedfellow” alliances that are unstable and demand “grand bargains” to address disparate goals. The result is often legislation that introduces a new set of daunting immigration policy dilemmas. Finally, one of the most crucial dynamics of congressional immigration policymaking has been a shift over time from relatively insulated client politics to increased engagement by mass publics and key voting blocs. This expanding scope of conflict and its impact on congressional immigration politics receives the most extensive attention in this essay. In the contemporary politics of immigration reform, lawmakers now balance the demands of well-organized lobbies and advocacy groups with grassroots constituency pressures and electoral calculations.
This paper focuses on the congressional dynamics of American immigration reform. Working paper presented at the Baker Institute Latin America Initiative conference "Immigration Reform: A System for the 21st Century."